He influenced a generation, he was the designer who brought street aesthetics on the catwalk after having determined its canons by inventing street couture and the concept of streetwear, certainly the most important black designer of the 80s.
Today we tell you the story, unfortunately forgotten, of Willi Smith, one of the most influential African-American designers in the history of contemporary fashion.
Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, curator of the “Willi Smith: Street Couture” exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, said: “The lack of scholarship on Willi Smith created a missing link in our understanding of contemporary fashion and visual culture”.
In her life and with her work she challenged the racism and classism deeply rooted in the fashion world through clothing that was accessible to all and gender neutral, her creations were meant for anyone who wanted to wear them: “Fashion is a thing made for people and designers should remember that. Models pose in clothes. People live in them”.
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Willi Donnell Smith was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1949 to Willie Lee Smith, an ironworker, and June Eileen Smith, a homemaker, both of whom had a particular penchant for fashion.
Little Willi immediately showed a propensity for drawing and as a boy, he spent hours drawing while sitting on the floor of his house: “I loved drawing and designing clothes, my mother told me that I was born to be an artist or a designer”. He attended Mastbaum Technical High School for Design and then the Philadelphia Museum College of Art, where he took a course in fashion illustration. After his parents’ divorce, his grandmother Gladys Bush – a fundamental figure in Willi’s life and career – took care of him and encouraged him to continue studying and following his dream of becoming a designer.
He moved to New York to attend, thanks to two scholarships received, the Parsons The New School for Design. In 1965, thanks to his grandmother Gladys who was the housekeeper of a family very close to the designer of the First Ladies, Arnold Scaasi, Willi was able to obtain an internship with the Canadian couturier while also attending a Liberal Arts course at New York University.
In 1967 he left Parsons and began his design career drawing inspiration from what people were wearing on the streets of New York.
From 1969 to 1973 he worked as lead designer for the sportswear brand Digits and hired as his assistant Laurie Mallet – who would become his partner in the future – met in New York while she was in town for a vacation.
The experience, however, has an abrupt end, the company goes bankrupt and closes its doors.
The following year he founded his first label, Willi Smith Designs, Inc., together with his sister Toukie and his friend Harrison Rivera-Terreaux, but due to unfamiliarity with the commercial management of a brand, the adventure lasted only 8 months.
In 1976 he undertook the journey that changed his life. Together with Mallet he went to Mumbai and there he created a small collection of women’s clothing in natural fibres, partly inspired by Indian police uniforms.
That was the turning point, the collection was an unexpected success and shortly after, the two founded the brand WilliWear Ltd.
The brand immediately gained public acclaim, thanks to a collection, that of 1978, influenced by nautical uniforms and Southeast Asian clothing clearly ahead of its time, mixed a relaxed fit typical of sportswear – a legacy of his experience at Digits – with sartorial elements of the highest level: the street couture.
“He mixed workwear, military wear, African and Indian prints. He was in love with denim and the idea of the romantic cowboy, often incorporating tweed, denim or corduroy into his collection. He loved overalls and the utilitarian aspects of the silhouette”, fashion historian Darnell-Jamal Lisby said.
The pinnacle was reached in 1986, when the company’s revenues broke through the $25 million ceiling, an incredible figure.
On April 16th, 1987, however, Willi Smith was admitted to Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York City after contracting a Shigella infection and pneumonia during a trip to India to buy tissues. His condition worsened drastically due to AIDS, which Smith apparently did not know he had contracted, and he died the next day, leaving an unbridgeable void. The funeral was held on April 20 at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel in Manhattan, after which his remains were cremated.
Smith, African American and openly gay, managed to emerge in the New York context of the 80s thanks to his interdisciplinary approach to fashion.
He was an all-round artist and patron: in 1984 he involved 21 artists to create t-shirts with silkscreened artwork, these t-shirts reproduced original works by artists such as Keith Haring, Christo, Barbara Kruger, Dan Friedman and many others. The project was part of the “WilliWear Productions Made in New York” collection that was presented with a video, “Made in New York”, directed by Los Levine, the first short film project to showcase a collection to the public. A combination of art, fashion and cinema that reflects what today is a trend followed by the most important fashion houses in the world also because of the impossibility of organizing the classic fashion shows in presence due to the pandemic that upset the customs of the fashion system.
He has made costumes for theater and film, collaborated with Spike Lee, and designed the wedding dress worn by Mary Jane Watson when she married Peter Parker in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21, in 1987. Smith also designed uniforms for workers in Jeanne-Claude and Christo’s 1983 installation Surrounded Islands as well as for Pont Neuf Wrapped (1985) in Paris.
The New York Daily News called him “the most successful black designer in the history of fashion”, a precursor and a forerunner of the times who created a defined and extremely contemporary style and bequeathed us the concept of streetwear, which is now the dominant theme of contemporary fashion.